Art has been around since the beginning of time in one form or another, constantly growing in lockstep with our cultural development and playing an integral part in how we learn, teach and communicate. To this day, museums and galleries host millions of people every year. But what’s the reason it happens? What compels us to make and experience artworks? We all know art can draw strong reactions of good and bad. There is a growing consensus amongst the public and artists themselves that the therapeutic use of art materials can have a strong effect on our mental health and well-being because it sort of forces people to concentrate on something other than their worries. But is this really the case? What is the science behind art’s relationship with the mind?
We are inherently creative beings, visual representation is kind of embedded in our DNA, and we have always been drawn to the abstract qualities of the artwork. Since our earliest ancestors began telling stories, we have started to use image-making to express ourselves and to give other people messages. From the exaggerated curves and Cycladic figurines to the stylized depictions of animals and ancient cave paintings that have been left on Earth more than 40.000 years ago. Something deep within us immediately responds to that. It’s been shown that the brain has evolved to understand art to both make art and then also understand how to interpret visual representation. The Nobel prize-winning scientist Eric Kandel believes the brain responds to the abstract qualities of art. He suggests that abstraction challenges our brain by breaking apart the perspective of what it shows, forcing the brain to come up with what he calls “a new logic of bottom-up processing”. The brain has to work in a completely different way when looking at an artwork, which is a kind of challenge to the mind to interpret images that are not used to reconstruct.
Art’s ability to trigger unusual processes in the brain has made a way for it to be used as a form of expressive therapy, treating conditions from depression and anxiety to eating disorders and dementia. The technique is based on the idea that the creative process involved in making art allows access to unconscious parts of the mind while provoking cognitive stimulation. Art therapy is not used to diagnose conditions but rather to allow the therapist and the client insight into past experiences by visualizing elements of them in the pages, providing the individual a deeper understanding of his or herself. Through these therapies, clients with conditions like PTSD are able to express and recall memories that they are otherwise unable to talk about or access. This idea of art therapy can be seen throughout history before the establishment of formal art therapy.
Contemporary artists like Louise Bourgeois, known for twisting spiders and unflinching self-portraits, have referenced the relationship between art and mental health saying “Art is restoration, the idea is to repair the damages that are inflicted in life”. To art historians, Bourgeois’ art not only suggests clues to her personal relationships and conflicts but also seems to offer direct links to her creative process. The spiders were said to be a layering of emotional response to the complicated relationship she had with her parents, an arachnid depiction of her caring mother. Her assistant Jerry Gorovoy describes “Like the young runaway Dorothy Gale from Kansas, Bourgeois has been on a journey to alleviate a core experience of abandonment”, which is a key theme in the artist’s work. The recently discovered archive reveals Bourgeois has been an enthusiastic list-maker. In 1958, aged 47, Bourgeois compiled a melancholy account of her failures, fears, and a suicidal list of "seven easy ways to end it all.” With all their tangled logic, these emotional inventories provided a gateway to Bourgeois' way of thinking.
Clockwise from the top-left: Untitled (Study for Hairy Spider) (2001), Spider (Cell) (1997), Spider Woman (2004), Maman (Spider) (1999). (Source: Museum of Modern Art)
And of course, art has huge benefits for audiences and viewers as well. Doodle imaging studies have shown that experiencing art and engagement with creative activities have a stabilizing effect on our bodies normalizing heart rate, blood pressure, and even cortisol levels which relate to stress. Art in health care delivery has also revealed an increase in positive clinical outcomes for patients while also supporting other stakeholders including the patient’s loved ones, health care providers, and the wider community. The creation and enjoyment of art is certainly a motivating factor in recovery and helps promote holistic wellness. Through creativity and imagination, we find our identity and our reservoir of healing. An increasing self-reflection and self-awareness — once you understand yourself, you can understand your place in humanity and the world.
In a time where mental health seems to be our biggest conquest, yet frequently shunned, forgotten, and misdiagnosed; art grants an opportunity to confront the darker places within us. It has always been a valuable way of allowing artists to externalize and analyze their thoughts. And for audiences, to gain new perspectives and to experience our common creative and positive benefits. Though, there is still a lot of research to be done to deepen our understanding of art. For now, what is clear is that art can have benefits for us that are profound and unknown. The more we connect the dots between creative expression and healing, the more we will discover the healing power of art.
• Bilsky, E. (2016). Eric Kandel’s Reductionism in Art and Brain Science – Bridging the Two Cultures. Cerebrum.
• Tiret, H. (2017). The benefits art therapy can have on mental and physical health. Michigan State University.
• Stuckey, H. L. (2010). The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature. American Journal of Public Health.
• Eising, D. (2019). How arts can help improve your mental health. Mental Health Foundation UK.
• Turner, C. (2012). Analysing Louise Bourgeois: art, therapy and Freud. The Guardian.